February 15, 2018 / 9:19 AM / 9 months ago

Indian union appeals to global brands over fair wages, jobs

CHENNAI, India, Feb 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian trade union has asked 130 global garment brands for help in a dispute with a major label supplier in a rare move by workers that campaigners say spotlights an unmapped part of the supply chain.

The Garment and Textile Workers Union (GATWU) said a demand for fair wages and the reinstatement of more than 50 employees dismissed in recent months from Avery Dennison’s factory in southern Karnataka state was from the “invisible worker”.

Unions and activists say as companies volunteer to map their supply chains, labour violations at the end of complex manufacturing and distribution networks are often hard to spot.

“We wrote to brands because these workers are part of their supply chain and are being treated unfairly,” said Jayaram Kottagarahalli Ramaiah, an adviser at GATWU, which has an active membership of more than 5,000 workers in Karnataka.

“Workers tried to talk with management in recent months, wore black bands in protest and some went on hunger strike, but to no avail,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

California-based Avery Dennison - which is one of the world’s largest suppliers of labels, graphic tags and price tickets to the apparel industry - has denied all allegations.

In a complaint to Avery Dennison’s management, the global brands, and the state labour department, the union said many of the workers had been employed on contract for at least five years and should have been made permanent staff.

Calling the terminations illegal, GATWU accused the company of not paying minimum wages and benefits, and of threatening to close the factory should contract workers unionise.

Under Indian law, companies may hire contract workers for jobs that are not part of their “core work”, but must ensure payment of the minimum wage and access to benefits.

Avery Dennison’s director of human resources for South Asia, Saurav Kumar, said engaging contract employees was both common practice and legal. Permanent jobs were offered to workers based on company’s requirements.

“Currently, a recruitment drive is going on ... Contract workers who have the experience of working on machines in Avery Dennison are being given preference over external candidates,” he said in an email.

BRAND CONCERNS

The dispute is the latest in a series of rows between workers and management in India’s multi-billion dollar textile and garment industry that employs about 45 million workers.

Campaigners have complained that a growing number of workers at suppliers have been suspended or dismissed within days of joining unions or attending union events.

Brands have expressed concerns over accusations of discrimination against unionists, said Martin Buttle of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), which brings together brands, unions, factory-owners and civil society groups.

Avery Dennison is not an ETI member, but does supply labels to many ETI members, including H&M, Gap and Inditex.

“ETI members recognise that the human rights of workers, including their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, should be respected,” Buttle said by email.

Avery Dennison had “agreed to keep them updated on their actions”, Buttle said.

Gowrish Venkategowda, 32, said Avery Dennison’s factory told him on Feb. 1 that his services as a data-entry operator earning 12,000 rupees ($187) a month were no longer needed.

“Then they went and hired people on daily wages to do the job I have done for the last 14 years,” he said. (Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj. Editing by Robert Carmichael and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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